Through the time tunnel
Inside the grounds of Kentwell Hall, it is 1556. Outside, in a tree-lined avenue, scores of large coaches disgorge excited children wearing a uniform of smocks, kirtles (waistcoats and skirts) and coifs (head coverings) for the girls, trunk hose (breeches) and jerkins (waistcoats) for the boys.
Is this the set for a new BBC drama? Only trainers, the occasional football shirt and rain-beating bin bags worn over the top of the costumes give away that these are 21st century children.
For three weeks each summer, Kentwell Hall in Long Melford in Suffolk, is the setting for a Tudor Re-Creation for parties of schoolchildren. Many heritage sites make "journey-through-time" gestures, with a stray actor or two dressed up in period costume or a sound track of period music. But the commitment to living history at Kentwell is 110 per cent. What makes their "Re-Creations" unique is the fact that the redbrick Elizabethan manor house at Kentwell and its surrounding estate is peopled with hundreds of "re-enactors" for children to interact with. There are the 400 volunteers at any one time taking on the role of those who might have lived on the estate. For 24 hours a day, these volunteers work, talk and play the part - from dyers, woodsmen, potters, and weavers to chandlers, alchemists, cooks, pedlars, seamstresses, musicians, and gentry family of the house.
The re-enactors - some with children - come from all round the country, even from abroad. Many are professionals. "We have businessmen here, doctors, even a judge came once," says Lucy Grant, one of the administrative staff. "Sometimes people want the chance to do manual things that they don't normally do".
For the Year 5 children from Milton Road primary school in Cambridge, preparation for the visit began weeks before. They learnt about Tudor history earlier in the year so the impending visit acts as a re-inforcement. A teachers' pack supplied by Kentwell provides instructions on what costumes girls and boys must wear. It also encourages children to become familiar with the "good morrow, all is well" manner of speech at Kentwell.
Class teacher Roger Lilley supplemented the language notes with some cutting Shakespearean insults. "Whether the children talk to the re-enactors is a question of confidence," he admits.
The Milton children make the transition into the Tudor world by walking through a simple tunnel. They clutch tiny replica Tudor coins which they have exchanged for their own money in case they take a fancy to the pedlars' wares (including delicious flapjacks). Once the gatekeeper has warned them about misbehaving ("poaching children will be hung from the trees"), the children wander off in small groups with an adult and a map following any route they like. The re-enactors not only talk about their work but also about wider issues of the day - such issues vary depending on which year is chosen.
Using the language is a challenge. Anna Marmion, 10, is initially more confident than the boys in her group and she sits down at the hearthside of a cottage full of women. The pottage is cooking in a large pot. "Is that red root (carrot)?" she asks to start the conversation and the women soon start telling her about their worries over paying the rent.
Children are encouraged to participate in the Tudor re-creation for a full three and a half hours. According to Kentwell's owner Patrick Phillips:
"They get into it so much more effectively if they don't take a break.
Sometimes children are unaware of the length of time that has passed".
There are so many activities going on that every child seems to find something to respond to. For Daniel Infield Solar, 10, it is the basket-making. He is keen to try. The basket-maker explains how willow has kept its value while the coins are "shrinking". "Are the coins really getting smaller?" asks Daniel, perplexed. Ten-year-old Richard Higham's imagination is fired by the archery. He asks the fletcher why you need a left or right hand feather from a bird's body and discusses the merits of the long bow.
The playing of early instruments by musicians in the main hall fascinates Anna and Alex Cook, 10. They eagerly take up the opportunity to play a rebec (a three-stringed violin) and a viol da gamba (small cello). Anna sings the Tudor song, King Henry's Pastime with Good Company, accompanied by a musician on the crumhorn (a wind instrument with an umbrella handle).
At the end of the visit, the children return through the time tunnel, stunned by the intensity of their experiences - and fall with relief on the delights of a 21st century shop.
Roger Lilley will definitely be bringing another class back to Kentwell next year. "There is really nothing like it. How could a visit to school by a theatre group compare with the impact of this?"
The main Tudor Re-Creation takes place for three weeks over late June and early July. A smaller version takes place over four days in late September.